Industry Tells T&I To Lead With The Carrot On Autonomous Vehicles

December 7, 2016

On Tuesday, December 6, the House Highways and Transit Subcommittee held a roundtable discussion on how autonomous vehicles (AVs) will impact America’s surface transportation systems in the coming decades.

The subcommittee of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, led by Chairman Sam Graves (R-MO), gathered five public and private sector experts leading industry efforts to prepare for autonomous vehicles:

  • Hon. Blair Anderson, Under Secretary for Policy, United States Department of Transportation
  • Mr. Chris Spear, President and CEO, American Trucking Associations (ATA)
  • Hon. David Strickland, Counsel and Spokesperson, Self-driving Coalition for Safer Streets
  • Mr. David Zuby, Executive Vice President and Chief Research Officer, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)
  • Mr. Kevin Acklin, Chief of Staff and Chief Development Officer, City of Pittsburgh

The hearing revolved around autonomous vehicle provisions in the FAST Act, as well as the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) recently released Federal Automated Vehicle Policy.

While oversight of NHTSA is largely left to the House Energy & Commerce Committee, provisions in transportation bills like the FAST Act can play a crucial role in advancing AV testing and development.

Sec. 6004 of the FAST Act set aside $60 million in grants annually for Advanced Transportation And Congestion Management Technologies Deployment (ATCMTD) technologies for FY 2016-2020. These grants are intended to speed up the development of cutting-edge transportation improvements and technologies including autonomous vehicles and congestion management. The notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) was published in March of this year and closed in June.


The FAST Act continued funding for the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) program and instructed the GAO to submit a report assessing autonomous vehicle policy and implementation paths by December 2017 (sec. 6025).

The FAST Act also required the Department of Transportation to issue a grant to one University Transit Center (UTC) grant recipients for researching autonomous vehicles and related technologies (sec. 6016).

[Ed. Note: Carnegie-Mellon University won one of 32 UTC grants awarded by USDOT this week, receiving $14 million for AV research]

A Glimmer of Bipartisanship

As we discussed last month, autonomous vehicles are one of the few topics on which Republicans and Democrats often agree – despite growing consumer protection complaints from Democrats.

Subcommittee Chairman Graves and Ranking Member Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) expressed a shared excitement for the technology in their opening statements and – along with their fellow committee members – were bullish on the prospects for successful AV deployment.

“This is something that fascinates me,” Graves remarked.

Looking around the crowded chamber, Norton said, “I think you can see that there isn’t always standing room only… and there is great interest that is bipartisan. It behooves the Congress to get out in front [on autonomous vehicle policy] because industry is not waiting.”

Carrots, Sticks, and the Public Interest

The role that federal, state, and local governments should play in the autonomous vehicle arena has long been a point of contention – especially for a technology that is years, possibly decades, from maturity.

The debate is steeped in platitudes, postulations, and a pinch of optimism.

“Is it better to lead with carrots or sticks?” asked Congressman Dan Lipinski (D-IL).

“That depends. The carrot is a situational tool – it is up to Congress to make it the most effective,” replied David Strickland, former NHTSA Administrator and Counsel and Spokesperson for the Self-driving Coalition for Safer Streets. However, he said, there is certainly a role for firm regulations when needed.

But Strickland brought a few carrots of his own – the biggest of which had the timeless appeal of American exceptionalism: “Frankly, the one thing that is so important is that the US is the leader in this space. We need to pursue a regulatory framework that is logical, thoughtful, and consistent.”

And Strickland wasn’t the only one.

It is atypical that, on a rainy Tuesday morning in the last week of session, a roundtable packed a committee chamber to the point of being standing room only. Even as the rest of Washington smelled jet fumes and twisted arms over the CR, an audience of politicos and reporters came hungry.

Autonomous vehicles produce an unusual breed of policy issues in that they have no natural predators. Capitalists, techies, transportation wonks, urban planners, armchair philosophers, libertarians, and laypeople all find themselves drawn to the technology.

From the beginning, panelists and members alike praised the potential of the technology. This ultimately teed up discussions not of regulation, but how the federal government could create a friendlier environment for autonomous vehicles.

For the Rust Belt in search of hope: “The history in Pittsburgh is the history of innovation. [We were] a steel city previously . . . and now Carnegie-Mellon University is the reason I’m sitting here today,” glowed Kevin Ackland, Chief of Staff for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.pittsburgh-1075751_1280

For every American: “It all comes down to safety. In 2015, there were 35,200 lives lost across the U.S. Around 94% of accidents had an element of human error. As we look forward at AVs, clearly there is a huge opportunity for safety benefits,” boasted Blair Anderson, Under Secretary for Policy at USDOT. He pointed to the huge mobility opportunities for the elderly and others who cannot drive on their own. “There are [also] potential environmental benefits, commercial benefits.”

And for the unexpected: “This technology is something I want, something I need, and the needs are well-defined . . . getting drivers in trucks is already a challenge itself,” said Chris Spear, President and CEO of American Trucking Associations (ATA), referring to the perpetual shortage of American truck drivers. “What we’re talking about is a solution.”

Federal Preemption and State Regulations

On a federal level, it is completely legal to design and test autonomous vehicles as long as the vehicles comply with existing motor vehicle regulations. Stopping short of a proposed rulemaking, NHTSA’s Automated Vehicles Policy Statement provided manufacturers with guidance for complying with existing standards and collaborating with NHTSA to ensure safety.

However, NHTSA’s policy statement was released years after companies had already begun testing AVs on public roads across the country. Consequently, in the absence of federal regulations or guidance, eight states passed their own AV legislation – each of which was vastly different from the other. While NHTSA’s policy statement provided states with a set of model state legislation to mitigate this, it is nonbinding.

“[The American Trucking Associations] would love to see a comprehensive federal regulatory framework to come into full force,” said Spear, “I’d prefer to have something that spans all 50 states rather than a disparate set of rules.”

Many in the industry share Spear’s concern. Ultimately, NHTSA’s voluntary framework could force companies to devote significant energy and resources to complying with as many as 50 regulatory structures – thereby slowing or halting interstate commerce powered by AVs.

California may have been an early indicator. Over the past year, the state government and industry have been at loggerheads over a slew of proposed regulations. Most recently, the state proposed that companies testing AVs must certify that they meet NHTSA’s vehicle performance guidance through a 15-point safety assessment.

“That’s a backdoor rulemaking as far as I’m concerned,” Spear pronounced.

“I think a lot of people would have been quite happy if, instead of releasing our policy guidance, [USDOT] had began the rulemaking process,” Anderson remarked. He noted that NHTSA still retains its recall authority to prevent manufacturers and tech firms from operating autonomous vehicles that are demonstrably unsafe.

“We’re not unaccustomed to working with regulators on issues as complex as AVs,” said Spear. “We just want to help craft regulations that are precise and that we can comply with.”

“Cities like Pittsburgh are stepping up to the plate and [some] states as well. [On a federal level],” he continued, “we’re still reaching a crossroads of carrots and sticks. For now, I think we need a few more carrots than sticks.”


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